In the spring of 2009, I picked up my camera, left Baltimore, and set out on a two-month road trip to document the impact of the recession on everyday Americans. As I drove a clockwise loop around the country, I began to notice a disturbing pattern: Every town I drove through looked the same. At every highway interchange, I was greeted by the same fast food chains, big box stores and car dealerships. When the cities did distinguish themselves to a traveler’s eye, it was the small businesses that stood out, because they existed there and nowhere else.
As I spent time in these places, I learned it was really the people that made the place unique, and the small businesses were simply a manifestation of their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families, their communities.
I’d lost my job several months earlier, a casualty of the decline of local journalism. In my travels, I sought out people to interview and photograph who had also experienced loss at the hand of economic forces almost too big, complex and abstract to comprehend. To find these people, I used my personal network and ads on Facebook and Craigslist, and when those didn’t work, I’d set up in coffee shops and diners with a hand-made sign asking for interviews.
A pattern emerged out of these conversations. The people I spoke with thought they’d found stability and security working for a corporation or a big institution, only to be treated as expendable when their employer’s investment portfolio or stock value took a nosedive. These people had lost jobs, homes and confidence in themselves. Many wept as they told me their stories, uncertain how they’d feed themselves and their children in the months ahead.
But another, more hopeful pattern emerged as well. Many of these people were turning their loss into an opportunity to start something of their own, something they’d been putting off in favor of that illusory stability. They were becoming entrepreneurs. They still wanted the American dream, and if their corporate employers wouldn’t give it to them, they were going to go out, take the risk and earn it on their own terms.
I ended up spending the next couple years in New Orleans, and learned what it was like to live in a city that prized its unique identity and celebrated the things it could offer the world that no place else could (though many try!). The stories I heard on that road trip stayed with me as I pivoted from journalism to urban planning in the years that followed.
I returned to Baltimore in 2014, determined to help re-build a local economy that supported people over profits and celebrated the unique character of Baltimoreans — a people I’ve come to see characterized by grit, creativity, compassion, humility and clear-eyed determination.
While working at the Baltimore City Department of Planning, I started a program called Made In Baltimore, whose mission is to uplift maker entrepreneurs, filling the gaps left in Baltimore’s manufacturing sector when the big corporations abandoned us decades ago. These entrepreneurs represent the future of our city. They’re creating new and exciting products, and, along with them, good paying, working class jobs. They’re inhabiting buildings long abandoned and bringing life back to neighborhoods. But they’re also doing something equally, if not more important: They’re keeping consumer dollars in Baltimore and building generational wealth in our communities.
You see, when we buy something made overseas, from a company owned by investors or CEOs in far-away places, our money leaves Baltimore, never to return. But when we buy locally made goods by locally owned businesses, most of that money stays right here, re-circulates and continues to work for our city.
Baltimore has experienced decades of dis-investment, leading to the myriad social ills that persistently plague us. Buying local creates new economic opportunities, and so becomes a step towards reversing that trend. Sure, it might be cheaper to buy things from the big online retailers, but I believe the benefit to our city is worth the few extra dollars.
Despite everything going on in our country, when I look around Baltimore today, I have hope. I see a city questioning the status quo that has consistently failed to deliver for our most vulnerable people. I see a city embracing and uplifting the local businesses that make our neighborhoods distinct, vibrant and safer. I see a city demanding more of its leaders. I see a city finding its voice.
Believe it or not, the holiday shopping season is upon us. It’s the time of year when the vast majority of consumer spending takes place, and when small businesses can earn the money that will carry them through much of the next year. I want these businesses to thrive because I want my city to thrive, and that’s why I buy local. If you agree, join me.
Andy Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of Made In Baltimore, a program of the Baltimore Development Corporation.